So you've saved up your pennies for your big adventure, and you can now make your dream trip a reality. Amongst the excitement of booking plane fares and hotels, it's easy to forget that accessing your hard-earned cash abroad may not be as simple as it has been from your local travel agent or home laptop.
Here are 10 simple tips to keep in mind to ensure you're not left high and dry after getting off your flight.
1. Internationally accessible bank/cash cards
Ensure your bank/cash card can be accessed internationally. Not all domestically issued cards can be used abroad. Check with your bank in advance to see if your card can be used overseas or if you need to apply for another one. In general, if the card has the Cirrus Maestro logo on the back it can be accessed internationally. However, this doesn't mean that you can automatically withdraw from any ATM. You may need to try several until you find a local bank that will accept your card.
2. Carrying cash in a major currency
With this in mind, carrying some cash in a major currency to exchange can tide you over until you can access more money from an ATM. We usually carry some $US. If you are departing from your home country, you can always exchange some of your local currency before you depart if they offer the currency of the country you are traveling to, to save you time on the other end. However, we've yet to travel to a place where you haven't been able to exchange money at arrivals. If there is commission to be made, someone will be making a business out of it. In any case, carrying some cash in a major currency is generally a good idea as it gives you quick access to money that is more accepted the world over should you need it and not be able to access an ATM. In some locations, you may even be able to use this major currency as payment, even if the local currency is different.
3. Credit card cushion
While not 100% necessary for all trips, if you have access to a credit card, this can certainly give you peace of mind should you need access to more money. I wouldn't recommend doing a cash advance from an ATM if it can be avoided because of the generally exorbitant interest, but being able to use a credit card to pay for larger purchases or when you are in a bind, can certainly be helpful and reassuring. I'm not recommending overspending on heat-of-the-moment souvenirs, but if you've come all that way and an amazing unexpected opportunity comes your way, it would be a shame to miss out.
4. Traveler's checks – unnecessary hassle?
On our first round-the-world trip, we carried some traveler's checks that we never needed. In our experience, a combination of cash and card has been enough. We found them to be more of a nuisance in getting people to accept them rather than just carrying cash. If you have used traveler's checks and found them useful, we'd love to hear about your experience in the comments section below.
5. Not all destinations are the same
Remember that every country and location can differ in terms of the best way to access your money. It can (literally) pay to see what information you can find online about destination-specific advice.
On our first trip to Japan, despite having the Cirrus Maestro logo on the back of our bank cards, only my card would work (Hai and I had cards issued from two different Australian banks) and it would only work from post office ATMs. Also, keep in mind that many ATMs in Japan don't have an English option (for English, go to a post office, Shinsei Bank or (most) convenience stores).
You should also be aware that ATMs in Japan have a closing time. Yes, that's right. They are not open all night and are not accessible from the street. It depends on where and on what day of the week, but they may close as early as 5pm.
Despite being right up there technology wise, Japan is still very much a cash society. They don't do debit so forget using that cash card to make purchases, and many stores (even surprisingly large ones), don't accept credit card. Be prepared to use cash most of the time.
Finding out what you can before departure, can help you be better prepared for these bumps you might encounter along the way.
6. Be aware of fees
Accessing your money overseas will cost you in some way. Whether it be needing to pay a commission for exchanging money, an unfavorable exchange rate or international ATM/credit card usage fees. While we can't do much about exchange rates, other than trying to travel at a time when our local currency is strong and shopping around for the best deal, we can be aware of how much withdrawing from an ATM or using a credit card will cost us. Many banks charge a flat fee for accessing your money overseas and then charge a certain percentage of the amount accessed as interest. You should find out from your bank beforehand about what you can expect to be paying.
7. Avoid carrying large amounts of cash
While international fees can make it tempting to withdraw wads of cash each time, this is an obvious security risk. You should be smart about when and how much you withdraw to limit the number of times you need to pay this fee, but not be so thrifty that it causes more (serious) problems for you. Remember, losing all your cash will cost you more than that $5 fee.
8. Don't keep all your life lines in the one place
It may sound obvious, but I've met many a traveler who has been caught out by keeping their cash and cards all in the same place. Keeping them in different places will limit the chances that you don't have access to any money should the worst happen. Only keep small amounts of cash in your wallet or the place you are accessing money in public. A money belt under your clothes can be very useful for keeping your passport and extra cash or cards out of view.
9. Know who to call
You should always keep a copy of important numbers like an international toll-free number to contact your bank should any of your cards get lost or stolen. Keeping hard/soft copies of your cards, as well as of course your passport and visa, can save you a lot of hassle in a difficult situation.
10. The airport doesn't equal home
On my first solo trip to India as a teenager, I made the mistake of thinking that reaching the airport departure lounge for my return flight meant that I no longer needed access to cash. My plane ticket was already paid for and in a couple of hours I'd be on the plane and enjoying a meal with a movie, right? Well, as it turned out, my flight was delayed due to fog, and we had to sit around for hours until the airline finally made the decision to send us to a hotel for the night. Of course, the airline paid for the room and breakfast, but they didn't cover the call each of us made, even though I had only made a quick domestic call. I had a little small change on me, but not enough to pay the bill in the morning. Luckily, a fellow traveler was kind enough to pay the charge for me.
Eventually, we got on our flight the next day, but of course on arrival in Bangkok basically everyone had missed their connecting flights. I went to the airline counter and got a new ticket for the next flight out, the only thing was that wasn't for another 12 hours. I was suddenly about to spend what seemed like an eternity with just a handful of rupees.
To cut a long story short, I couldn't access my money to make a call or buy a meal. The currency exchange wouldn't accept coins or the poor state of the few Indian notes I had, none of the airport ATMs and basically all of the shops wouldn't accept my bank card, and I didn't have a credit card then. I was lucky that another traveler overheard me explaining my situation at the international phone card desk and after they turned me away, offered the remaining unused time on their card for me to make a call to inform my friend who was to pick me up from the airport about the change in arrival time. The only shop that would accept my bank card was one that sold boxes of chocolates and sweets. I ended up surviving those 12 hours on a box of Maltesers and on water from the water fountains.
Needless to say, I have never made that mistake again. Delays happen, and while the airline will cover certain expenses, you'll encounter incidental costs. Make sure you are prepared for them by not leaving your on-person cash to your last rupee (so to speak) and giving yourself more options card-wise. Having all the cash in the world means nothing unless you can access and use it.
How do you access money overseas? Do you have any general or destination-specific advice to add? We'd love to hear it in the comments section below.